Rob Young on how music echoes nature in the epoch of the Anthropocene.


Sound Matters: Essay

Music By Nature


From whale song and birdsong to the rhythms we observe throughout our cosmos, musicians have long tried to render the natural world into a musical form. Rob Young listens in on this history, and wonders how it resonates with our current Anthropocenic epoch – a time when the world is changing profoundly from humankind's noisy activities.

Illustrations by Louisa Gagliardi


Our tenure on this planet is a historical blip. Before the current Anthropocene, there have been many ages of Earth, each lasting millions of years, and there will be human-free eras in the future. In the light of this knowledge, how can art represent concepts that hold true for all the geological ages of Earth, not just our own? The idea of an art form governed by natural laws, not only human emotions, begins to make sense.

Music is precisely such an art form. Strip it back to its elements, beyond the popular tune, the great symphonic development, the tribal beat hammered on a log, and it’s an acoustical system with properties governed by the physics of the universe. When any music – from Bach to Stockhausen – aspires to the ‘cosmic’, it takes its structure and organising principles from nature’s arithmetic. It can move or even awe us in profound ways, but it is not the same type of experience as a work of romantic self-expression.


Any consideration of the relationship between musical process and nature must include the idea of cyclical rhythm. After all, the Earth itself was the first clock. As soon as civilisation’s most ancient astronomers – or stargazers – realised that the heavens moved in regular patterns, and connected the movements of the sun and moon with the regulated shift of years, seasons, months, days, hours, minutes, the human calendar was locked in to the gigantic mechanism of the universe. ‘Circadian rhythm’ is the name for measures based on the cycles of planetary motions, the rhythmic patterns soundtracking nature’s inescapable beat. The harmonic theory that emerged from that ancient world spoke of the music of the spheres, but later Western music of the classical and romantic period downplayed the other important aspect: the rhythms of the cosmos. Flow, development, structure dictated by feeling, intuition or programmatic portrait took precedence over non-human dynamics. In the classical orchestra, percussion is either non-existent, or used as accent, texture or intensification, it’s rarely an end in itself and even less often occurs in the foreground of the sound field. (How many concertos for percussion exist?) It took jazz, rock, funk and all the variants of electronic music – as well as the phonographic rediscovery of many forms of global and traditional musics, from African drumming to Balinese gamelan – to reinstate the idea of music whose driving force was rhythm, repetition and the sensation of space that falls between beats.


In the hands of different composers, percussive noises are by definition isolated sounds, which are appropriate for evoking the stars, points of light and galactic clouds visible in the night sky. A key work here is Iannis Xenakis’s Pléïades (1979), in which the composer discovered the concept of repeated beats as rhythmic atoms, and subjected them to increasing degrees of variation. “Still greater variations of an even greater complexity”, wrote Xenakis, “lead to total arhythm, to a massy awareness of the event, to notions of clouds, nebulas, galaxies of the fragmented dust of beats organised by the rhythm.” In the comet-tail of this work comes French composer Gerard Grisey’s Le Noir de L’Etoile (1989–90). Enormous in scope, and composed using radio signals from rotating pulsars, it attempts to evoke the unimaginable distances of space and the gravitational suction of black holes using nothing but beaten objects. Its method is to make the concert space a kind of universe, or galaxy in itself, placing the players in orbit around the audience. Drums ring out and solid bodies scrape against the blackness of silence, and we are forced to contemplate the existence of infinite rhythmic time cycles too large or complex for human perception to apprehend.

“Birdsong was an eternal music handed down from unimaginable antiquity, a manifestation of the original divine creation...”

Musicians have for centuries tried to render the natural world, or the natural sciences, into a musical form. Vivaldi wrote a Goldfinch Concerto, Beethoven had a Pastoral Symphony, and the cuckoo, lark and nightingale are never far away from the classical canon. Olivier Messiaen, one of modernism’s most individual voices and towering presences, worked with traditional notational means yet connected earth’s deepest canyons with the most distant stars, the earthbound and the divine. Birdsong was an eternal music handed down from unimaginable antiquity, a manifestation of the original divine creation. The intensely Catholic Messiaen believed the marvels of nature to be his creator’s gifts to humanity – audible and visible proofs of a higher power – and celebrated them in a musical language that remains unmatched. His birdsong-inspired passages – which appear in his orchestral pieces as well as the extraordinary piano opus, Catalogue d’Oiseaux (1958), does not sound precisely like a bird, as it is filtered through the familiar timbres of western musical instruments and also aims to convey the entire location and habitat.

“Although I think constantly about the relationship of music to nature, for me music does not exist to describe natural scenery,” wrote Toru Takemitsu, the Japanese modern composer whose delicate music frequently references natural surroundings, gardens and seasons. As well as Takemitsu, contemporaries such as David Dunn, Douglas Quin, John Luther Adams and Einojuhani Rautavaara have all applied different strategies to translating natural landscapes or the patterns of the animal and plant kingdoms into a music language.

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The twentieth century with its pioneering recording technologies have made that project much more immediate. The microphone and the recorder extended the human ear into the domain of nature as never before. In 1970, one of the surprise best selling LPs was an underwater recording, Songs of the Humpback Whale, a subaquatic recording made by the American biologist Roger Payne. He believed whales had evolved a musical syntax as intricate as the most advanced human music. This album, which went on to sell more than 100,000 copies, was a surprise hit and although none of these majestic mammals scooped any Grammy best vocalist awards, it heralded the dawn of a new age in listening habits. In the same year appeared another album featuring natural soundscape, In A Wild Sanctuary by ecologist and composer Bernie Krause with Paul Beaver, a specialist on the Moog synthesizer. This featured field recordings made by Krause in a Redwood forest north of San Francisco, a burbling stream, ravens’ wing-beats, and the ocean breeze wafting through treetops, subsequently incorporated into a heady mix of jazz, synthesized rock and orchestral texture. Both of these records, though sounding very different, conveyed the sense of natural beauty surviving in spite of tumultuous changes wrought on the planet by humanity.

The idea of hearing the sounds of nature as a form of music is very much alive nearly fifty years later. Chris Watson, a former founder of Sheffield industrial group Cabaret Voltaire, is now best known as the regular sound recordist for David Attenborough’s award winning nature documentaries for the BBC. Yet the stunningly engineered and richly immersive soundscapes he captures with his binaural microphones are also available as separate entities, often on CD or in the context of art installations. His expertise in remote mic placement now means that certain animals or birds – which usually flee at the slightest human approach – can be heard up close for the first time. The Norwegian artist Jana Winderen – who trained in marine biology – also exhibits her work as art. She specialises in sucking up underwater sounds, of fish, shrimps and melting polar ice caps, all of which both reveal the hitherto unheard ‘songs’ of strange creatures, but also the destruction of the planet’s ecosystems, and therefore carries a strong environmental message with more urgency than Roger Payne’s crooning whales.


The Canadian sound environmentalist R. Murray Schafer has classified natural sound in three categories: geophony, biophony and anthropophony. Geophony is non-biological signals that occur naturally, like wind, water or earth movements. Biophony is the collective signature produced by all organisms in a given habitat. Anthropophony consists of human-made sounds, either willed or as an accidental by-product of our presence here. As Bernie Krause explains in his study of biophonies, The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places (Little Brown/Hachette, 2012), biophony contains clear echoes of harmony, rhythm and timbre. Listening to the collective noise emitted by a rainforest or coral reef can exhibit similarly precise ‘arrangements’ and structures of a kind that a musicologist might detect in a composition. In a sense, all music aspiring to the condition of nature needs to take this into account in future. Instead of imitating nature, it has to evolve and behave according to natural processes, and at the same time it carries a responsibility with it, to preserve and nurture Earth’s natural music to help it survive the Anthropocene.


Rob Young is a writer and editor. His newest book, a biography of German band Can titled All Gates Open, is published 5 May 2018 by Faber & Faber.


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